June 2017 Profile: Melissa Ott

June 05, 2017


Melissa Ott

Name, title, name of organization: 
I'm a first year apprentice in the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture at the UCSC Farm & Gardens.

Describe your work environment and roles? 
From April through October, I'm living, learning, and working with 38 other first year apprentices in three sites: the Farm Garden, a hand-cultivated garden on the main farm; the Field, a tractor-cultivated series of fields on the main farm; and the Chadwick Garden or Up Garden, a hand-cultivated garden that is the site of the first garden at UCSC, founded 50 years ago by Alan Chadwick (learn more here: http://casfs.ucsc.edu/about/50th/index.html). The Chadwick Garden is where I'm currently learning and working, and I'll be rotating through the other sites throughout the program. Because most of us live onsite in the tent cabins on the Farm, I also partake in various chores and help cook meals once a month. Once a week, we also have class, which often includes a lecture, a demonstration, and then an opportunity for experiential learning. This process is referred to as, "I do, we do, you do" by our instructors.

What major projects are you working on? 
I'm focused on learning and practicing a wide range of techniques right now, including flower harvesting; single digging (preparing beds for planting); fruit tree thinning and pruning; organic fertilizer application for roses, trees, and vegetables; and finding time to reflect and catch up on my readings for class! We learn a little bit about a lot of different things throughout each week in our work sites, as well as have 1-2 focused classes per week that introduce new techniques or concepts that we continue to practice and learn more about throughout the program. The sum of these activities constitutes my one major project of becoming a skilled and educated gardener, which I've been trying to document as often as I can on my blog and Instagram: greenbeangal.blogspot.com and @greenbeangal

How does your current work relate to sustainability? 
We learn and practice organic farming and gardening in this program, which is a more sustainable way of growing food and flowers than "conventional" farming, which uses pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other chemicals that pollute groundwater and threaten the health and safety of ecosystems and people. We in the apprenticeship are each becoming skilled in how to effectively grow vegetables, fruit, and flowers in ways that are not only less harmful but can actually be regenerative for the land, ecosystems, and communities around us. Many of us are also interested in becoming garden and farming educators, or at least creating opportunities for those who interact with our food and flowers to learn about the value of agroecology and organic agriculture.

What inspired you to apply for the Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture? 
I had heard about the apprenticeship when I was a student at UCSC, and through my work with the UCSC Sustainability Office from 2011-2017, I became familiar with some of the agroecology, Real Food, and Global Food Initiative work happening on campus. When I decided I was ready to move on to something new, I reflected on my desire to be more hands-on with sustainability work and spend more time outdoors. Around that time, I visited my cousin who participated in the apprenticeship last year, and I shared with him that I was thinking of applying. His enthusiasm for the program and his encouragement to apply led me to start working on the application. As I began writing my responses to the application, I re-discovered more and more memories of gardening as a child, learning about plants and ethnobotany, and healing with the help of herbal plant-based medicine. I began to reflect on the profound joy and wonder I experience while growing plants from seed, creating new dishes in the kitchen, and experimenting with fermented foods. I realized as I spoke about the program with family and friends and worked on the application that many threads in my life were leading me to apply to this program focused on sustainable gardening and food. I'm so glad I did!

Share three things you’ve learned since you’ve begun your program:
I've learned a lot so far, but below are three specific things I've learned. You can learn, too, by visiting the CASFS website and downloading PDFs of many useful gardening and farming publications: http://casfs.ucsc.edu/about/publications/index.html

  • I've learned that new potatoes, or those little potatoes you can buy at the market, are literally newer potatoes than the larger ones--they are harvested earlier and that's why their skins are thinner and they have more sugar and less starch! I also learned how to plant potatoes in hilled rows, which you can go observe in the Chadwick Garden on the lower main slope. The potatoes are just starting to poke their green leaves out of the soil, and once they've grown a bit, we'll cover them up with the soil that's hilled next to each row. 
  • I've learned how to thin plums, peaches, and apples from tree branches, which encourages the remaining fruit to grow larger and juicier. Each fruit has different requirements for how far apart to thin each fruit. In learning this, I've also spent some time on orchard ladders, which is fun but also requires knowledge of how to safely position them in an orchard. 
  • I've learned to identify many flowers, such as Alstroemeria (Peruvian Lily), Agrostemma (Corn Cockle), Erigeron (Fleabane), and Stachys lanata (Lamb's Ear). Look them up so you can learn them, too!